Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Book Review: Ash by Malinda Lo

I picked up Ash for several reasons: I hadn’t read a good YA fantasy in a while, I hadn’t read anything with a lesbian/gay main character in a LONG while (like, Tamora Pierce’s Daja, I think), the Amazon page promised strong female characters, and it’s a retelling of Cinderella, and I’m a sucker for new spins on old tales. This was my first experience with author Malinda Lo, but I can guarantee it won’t be my last.

Ash by Malinda Lo
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers,
It sounds like a familiar story: Aisling, nicknamed Ash, loses first her mother, then her father, and is forced to live as a servant in the home of her wicked stepmother and stepsisters. There’s a fairy, a prince, a ball, a midnight flight. 

Fortunately, there’s also a Huntress, Kaisa, who befriends Ash and reminds her what it is like to be cared for after so many years of abuse. The fairy is a man-- a scary, alluring, mysterious man who grants Ash’s wishes but demands a price in return. The prince is a distant background figure, an object of desire for Ash’s stepsisters, but of no interest to her. And the stepmother-- well, yes, she’s as wicked as it gets. In the end, Ash learns the meaning of true love and the sacrifices it so often requires.

One of the most beautiful things about this book is Ash’s development from a frightened girl who dreams of being whisked away by fairies to a young woman with the confidence to love and be loved. It’s very gradual, very delicate. Ash learns, in part because of Kaisa, to deal with the circumstances of her life and take chances in order to improve them. (My only gripe is that neither she nor Kaisa ever punched the stepmother’s lights out. Granted, it would have been out of character for them, but someone needed to!)

I also loved the vivid and realistic personalities of the other characters, particularly the dark magnetism of the fairy Sidhean and the gentle, open sweetness of Kaisa. When asked why she is spending time with Ash, a mere servant, Kaisa answers: “I suppose it seemed as though you were being placed in my path time and time again. I wanted to find out why.“ All the characters were carefully crafted, flawed but sympathetic, and interesting to read about. The stepmother was pretty unrelentingly evil, but she’s still the kind of person I try to feel sorry for in real life: someone whose cruelty is so absolute that it must come from a place of misery.

I don’t want to spoil the romance by saying too much, but it was of the type which had me wanting to scream, “KISS ALREADY!”; i.e., I enjoyed it thoroughly. I’ll just share this quote, which is one of the more accurate and lovely descriptions of falling in love I’ve heard: “...Ash felt a surge of happiness within herself, as if she were unwrapping an unexpected gift, and the realization of it sent a blush of pink across her cheeks.”

If you like YA, fantasy, fairytales, romance, or (like me) any combination thereof, pick up Ash. As a reader, you’ll be in good hands with Lo, who never lets the tale spin out of control. I highly recommend Ash, and when I read more of Lo’s books, I’ll be sure to tell you about them as well!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Friends in the (Writing) Biz

A few posts ago, I talked about all the awesome stuff I learned at Ball State’s In Print Festival of First Books. What I didn’t talk about was my role in the event: I served on a team of literary citizens whose job was to publicize the festival, and in particular, try to shepherd in people from the Muncie, IN community who weren’t students or staff at BSU. This was an interesting challenge for us. Who in Muncie would be interested in this type of event? Where and how could we reach them? 

We met a few times and tossed around lots of ideas. The In Print Festival is primarily of interest to writers, but also to readers who might enjoy meeting and listening to new authors. And where do the cool people (i.e., readers and writers, of course) of Muncie hang out and do their shopping? Downtown! We decided to hang the official posters up all over the downtown area in the hopes of reaching non-college-affiliated eyes.

A few of us battled Indiana’s notorious winter weather and made one scouting trip before actually setting out with the posters. The various small and not-so-small business owners were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about not only helping our group but forging a new connection between the campus and the rest of town. We were able to hang posters everywhere from tattoo parlors and bars to craft stores and organic groceries. We made sure that Muncie’s eyes would be on those posters. 

In order to further promote the event and also give anyone interested in the posters a place to find more information online, one of our team members wrote a piece for the Muncie Voice, an online newspaper, describing the schedule and the authors who would participate.

Those are the nuts and bolts of what we did. It’s hard to say how successful we were in pulling in the Muncie community, but either way, the In Print crowd was sizable. For me, the actual tasks and results were not the most important thing. While I did learn something about being a literary citizen by helping to promote other writers, what really came home to me was how important it is to spend time in the company of writers, especially those who are at the same level as you and understand both the struggles and the joys. This is something I wish I had realized a long time ago instead of my senior year in college. If you’re in college or have some other special access to fellow writers, don’t waste it! Not only are they great for talking shop, they’re also, in my experience, some of the coolest (read: most nerdtastic) people in the world. Even though writing itself is a solitary activity, you’re going to need to crawl out of whatever dark space you’re holed up in every once in awhile and talk to real, live people. Writers will get you in a way that others don’t. 

I had a great time getting to know my team members and I look forward to following their success as writers. My advice: if you have the chance, get involved in the organization of a literary event! It’s a great way to meet people who love books as much as you do. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Fake Your Way Through Writer's Block

Real talk: I like to pretend I don’t get writer’s block. I do this by staring at the screen for a few minutes, maybe typing a line or two, then going off and doing something “important” and complaining about how I have no time to write.

I’ve heard all the tips and tricks for overcoming writer’s block. I’ve heard people claim that writer’s block is not a real thing, it’s just laziness or fear or an excuse. Personally, I don’t think there’s any magical wall built up in my brain that just prevents me from writing every now and then, or some goblin that comes and steals all my ideas in the night. I think it’s a mood, like any other. You’re either in the mood to write or not. And, like any mood, you can pretend you don’t have it.

You know how when you see that one person that you don’t really like but have to get along with because you see them every day, so you smile and go, “How are you?” and all that? Or when you’re feeling really down but you show up at a party and act like everything is hunky-dory? It’s all about misleading others into believing that you’re feeling a certain way when you’re not. If you’re good, you can even fool yourself.

If Severus Snape can fake being evil for years, you can
fake your way through a few pages.

That’s usually unhealthy. But I think that in the case of writers, we sometimes have to fool ourselves if we want to get anything done. If you’re having one of those stare-blankly-at-the-page days, don’t say, “Damn that writer’s block” and turn on the tube. Write through it. Do what I did to get this blog started and type nonsense until an idea hits. Pretend you’re writing and that you’re excited about it. Fool your brain. Or at least make it so annoyed with you that it agrees to cooperate. It’s effective. You may not crank out your best work ever, but crappy pages are better than no pages. 

This method may not work for everyone, but it works for me. Do you believe in writer’s block? How do you deal with off days?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Role of Music in the Writing Process

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, I’ll fill you in: Fall Out Boy is back with the intention of saving rock and roll. I have my opinions on this album (“The Phoenix” is probably my favorite track, Patrick Stump’s voice is still what all my golden dreams are made of, BUT this is my least favorite of all the FOB albums), but in general, I’m really glad they’re back. I don’t think most of us really believed that “on hiatus” business, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see one of the bands I grew up with making music again. 

I have another reason to celebrate the return of Fall Out Boy: one of the major characters in my current novel project is obsessed with them. He quotes them, wears their t-shirts, covers his walls in posters of them. He takes their music very seriously and is offended when others don’t. It’s funny. It was funnier when they were out of the picture and being slowly forgotten by the industry, but now it’s interesting, and I don’t yet know what to do with their sudden reappearance.

Even though they're not one of my top favorite bands, I’ve listened to hours upon hours of Fall Out Boy in the past 7 months or so. Because their music is so intimately connected with the work (and because I’m so familiar with the songs at this point), I’ve found I can listen to them while I’m writing, even though I usually can’t listen to anything with words because it distracts and confuses me. I mostly listen to Infinity on High, but the rest too. I also listen to them while walking to class, in the car, at the gym, wherever I can, and it never fails to get me in the writing mood.

Oddly enough, many of the characters in this WIP were inspired by a different band altogether-- My Chemical Romance and their latest concept album, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. (I won’t talk about the end of MCR. Suffice it to say I haven’t been able to listen to them since because I hate crying. In the meantime, here’s a great post on the topic by fellow literary citizen Sarah Hollowell). The Killjoy characters and the associated music videos fascinated me, and they had a light but definite impact on my work.

Music is art and writing is art, so it shouldn’t surprise us when they end up woven together. Personally, I embrace music as fuel for my writing. It inspires me, it opens up new avenues for exploring characters, and it keeps me focused even when I’m away from the keyboard. 

I have this fun little habit that I think is actually helpful to the writing process: character theme songs. Do any of you do this? I often assign my major characters a theme song. Sometimes it takes me awhile to find the right one, but when I do, it usually helps me understand the character even more deeply. At minimum, hearing the song will get me pumped to write! 

There's a screenshot of my writing playlist below. It has mostly character theme songs from my two WIPs, but also just some that are generally inspiring. Got a writing playlist of your own? Do you assign your characters theme songs or speculate on their music tastes?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Literary vs. Genre, or Why I Find This Distinction Problematic

Hermann Hesse, you classy mofo you.

As a teenager, I began to think that reading thick, dusty books by dead white guys (and a few dead white women) was how one became Literary. I struggled valiantly through them. These were dark times. That’s not to say that I found nothing I liked-- I adore Hermann Hesse, Jude the Obscure is one of my favorite books, I cite Jane Austen among my influences as a writer-- but much of it felt like homework. I interspersed these with what I called “fun” books (fantasy, horror, sci-fi) just to give myself a break, never realizing that I was looking at the whole situation the wrong way.

Here’s what I mean. I’m not a literary writer in the accepted sense, and only occasionally a literary reader. There is no set definition for literary, of course (and it’s certainly not my teenage definition), though many have tried to tackle the differences between literary and commercial or genre fiction. More and more are admitting that the boundaries have become blurred, which is good. Read Julianna Baggott’s Pure and Fuse, if you need proof. Or King’s Hearts in Atlantis. Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident. Virtually anything by Ursula K. LeGuin

In general, I prefer not to read or write traditional literary fiction. As a Creative Writing major, I have had this preference repeatedly trod on. No professor says you can’t write YA fantasy. A few even encourage students to write whatever they want. But when the examples given of great writing that we should emulate are 95% high-minded literary fiction, what message are we supposed to get? There are, of course, exceptions-- I was introduced to Baggott’s Pure in a fiction class, and fell in love with the original Frankenstein in a lit course. But on the whole, work that is presented to students as what they should strive to emulate is usually unequivocally on the literary end of the spectrum. And to make matters worse, while there is a small but passionate group of spec-fic aficionados in probably every CW program, one cannot help but look to the indie-lit hipsters and feel that one is doing something wrong or inferior. And, of course, there’s the added challenge of trying to find outlets for our work. Literary magazines are just that: literary.

A small section of my bookshelf, with representatives of much that
I love: Doyle, Gaiman, Hardy, Hesse, Hiaasen, Hill, King...

I’m not trying to throw a pity party here. Speculative fiction is thriving right now, and genre in general will likely never die (also, if you think "literary" is not a genre itself, albeit a wide one, I think you're bananas). And I want to stress that I think it’s important to learn from the literary giants. If not for my writing classes, I might never have had the chance to be dazzled by David Foster Wallace or Sherman Alexie, and might never have realized that "literary” doesn’t necessarily mean dead, white, male, and famous. But I also think that we need to abandon the prevailing notion that commercial or genre fiction lacks depth and is more about explosions and aliens and dragons than character development and the exploration of big issues like morality and human nature. Truth is, these boundaries are not necessary, and many writers and readers are purposely seeking to circumvent them. Genre readers are demanding more complexity, while literary readers are becoming more open to genre elements. As Michael Kardos illustrates, it’s not a dichotomy, it’s a continuum.

Do you think professors should be more open to teaching genre fiction? Have more examples of books that blur the lines? Share!